For many of us, there’s a curious ick factor that has long been associated with the word intimacy. In our younger years, it may have been adults on TV who used the word as a musty euphemism for sex, which took away all the graphic detail but somehow made it more uncomfortable.
Sex is - or can be a part of intimacy, absolutely. However intimacy as we know it today encompasses so much more; closeness, safety, revelation, and warmth between humans. Sex is by no means all of it. It’s about eliminating some of the space that separates us.
‘Intimacy’, like ‘lover’, is making a comeback. Perhaps it’s already a wellness buzzword on the verge of overuse. But if you’re new to intimacy—the term and/or the experience—how nice for you!
You’re actually most likely not as new as you think you are, too. Intimacy isn’t just lighting romantic candles and cosying up to the love of your life (although it can include this). It is distinct from love and something we can foster between friends, sex partners, family and sometimes strangers.
Although intimacy, like many things, doesn’t fit into one perfect definition, we generally understand it to be about authentic connection with another (we get to know them deeply, and they get to know us deeply). The ways we achieve this are usually broken down into five categories:
The obvious one can go first. It covers touching, hugging, kissing, sex - however you may define it and overall physical affection. Depending on how you feel, being physical might be the easiest way for you to fast-track intimacy in your relationship with someone, or the most daunting.
Not everybody likes to be touched. Getting naked and having sex with someone can also drag insecurities to the fore.
To nurture physical intimacy, it’s important everyone involved feels safe. Respecting boundaries, bodies and consent is essential to any sexual experience.
Emotional intimacy is all about communicating feelings. For lots of people, this is the really hard one. The tools to express how someone made us feel aren’t dispersed equally among people. Our thresholds for trust are also really important here.
But at some point, emotional intimacy requires this vulnerability.
If someone doesn’t confide in you, it might help to reflect if you can make them feel more secure to do so. As with all types of intimacy, listening is as important as communicating. SHIPS Psychology also has great intimacy-building prompts to help us get to the bottom of our feelings and desires.
Also described as a “meeting of the minds”, intellectual intimacy involves sharing the things you enjoy and care about. It’s your passions, politics and world-views.
I remember being alone with my first boyfriend after we’d made things “official”. To get him up to speed, I listed my biggest fears, embarrassing stories and favourite things, and asked him similar pointy questions.
Looking back, this attempt to flood our relationship with intimacy is tragically manic pixie dream girl-inspired. But it set a good precedent for honest and stimulating discussion, which in hindsight was the best part of that relationship.
Think about the intellectual ground you like to cover with the people around you. Figure out what challenges you all to grow together and perhaps which values are non-negotiable for you.
Experiential intimacy refers to the connections bolstered when we spend time together. This might happen when we watch our favourite show, go hiking or travel. These bonds can also form when we support each other through painful moments and milestones.
Having separate experiences, as Esther Perel would argue, are also really important for sustaining intimacy and desire in the long term.
Spirituality can be incredibly personal and nuanced, so aligning yours with another person’s isn’t always possible. It’s also not always essential.
While you might not have an explicit spiritual practice or faith, you could connect with another on the basis of a shared code of ethics.
At the very least, we can get to know each other quite well by asking the big questions about the meaning of life.
While those five elements expand our understanding of intimacy way beyond sex, it’s still just the tip of the iceberg.
Ziyad Marar, author of Intimacy : Understanding the Subtle Power of Human Connection posits that intimacy has four other characteristics: it is reciprocal, emotional, conspiratorial, and kind.
Reciprocity is what separates intimacy from love. Love can be unrequited, but intimacy exists between people and must be mutual. Love doesn’t even have to be present for intimacy to occur. Marar uses the example of revelations between strangers on a plane. There is no baggage from the past or pressure on the future, which creates a welcoming environment for risk-taking.
The reciprocated feeling must heighten our emotions to show us the moment we’re sharing is significant, according to Marar. And that shared moment must have some degree of understanding that it stays between those who experienced it.
The final element in intimacy is kindness. When we share something private, we expose ourselves to cruelty, but we take a leap of faith that we will instead be met with care.
“Take kindness away from intimacy and you get torture,” says Marar.
With all these components at play, intimacy can seem elusive, but there is comfort in knowing it can come from so many sources throughout our lives. If we nurture intimacy and are mutually responsible for that rare and tiny space between us, however fleeting, it could very well make sex, relationships, connection and yes, life all the more pleasurable.